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Online Edition — March 2004

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In the Spotlight
Bombardier Recreational Products
Moving the Elephant
Empowerment—Seeing the Elephant


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Moving the Elephant

Empowerment—Seeing the Elephant

The Problem
Consider the story of a female employee in a sawmill who unloaded stacks of lumber with a hoist. A team of men sorted the wood that she unstacked, occasionally stopping the chain when the wood came too fast.

She noticed the frequent stopping and determined through experimentation that if she paced her work at a slightly slower rate, there were fewer stops and overall productivity and quality improved. She was pleased with herself and was enthusiastic about her improvement.

When her foreman came by, he saw her more relaxed pace and told her to speed up her work. When she tried to explain her motives, he didn’t believe or listen to her. He assumed that she was being lazy and that he needed to keep an eye on her.

At this point, the woman reacted, “I’ll show him.” So, she sped up even faster than the initial pace, reducing productivity instead of improving it. She convinced herself that she no longer cared about the problems this caused. She entered a state of denial.

The foreman was also in denial. He decided that in the interest of productivity, he wouldn’t care about her and her feelings.

Later, the woman realized how hard she was working and that with her union’s protection, she couldn’t be fired anyway. Her new thinking was: “Why should I care? I don’t have to work so hard. I get paid either way. I’ll just put in my time.” Her new decision was to deny even more of herself, essentially by saying, “I won’t be aware that I care.”

Many organizations, especially those that base their functioning on authority, require denial from people. This management style forces people to become superficial and to function at a level far less than they might. Often these same organizations consider this superficial, nonfeeling employee to be a “good employee” because they do what they are told without complaint.

Later, the woman saw another employee who was reading on the job. He was paid the same amount of money as she was, but did far less work. She told herself, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t really care.” But it bothered her nonetheless. Eventually, she went to the union hall to complain.

This woman started out as creative and involved in her work, caring about the company, but now her creative side was repressed. She lost much of her ability to see problems in the mill and use creativity in solving them.

A Solution
Let’s consider this woman’s situation in relation to the story of the elephant, a theme of these articles. She is like one of the blind men who think an elephant is like a post because he only touches one leg.

In this case, the woman’s blindness is self-imposed. It won’t do any good for management to teach her about “systems thinking” because her inability to see the whole elephant is rooted in her denial of hurtful feelings. Blaming her for not caring also misses the point. She cares too much.

Breaking out of this requires a crisis. When her company is going to fail and she is about to lose her job, she can drop her denial and remember how much she cares. That’s when she can awaken to who she really is and think about what she wants. Xerox Corporation, Florida Power and Light, and IBM all are examples of amazing “turnaround” stories, where a crisis sparked everyone to work together in new ways.

In earlier articles I described the transformational thinking process called choice creating that can solve impossible-to-solve issues. Choice creating is “heart creativity” rather than the “head creativity” of brainstorming. It is similar to the thinking a crisis can evoke. Also, a dynamic facilitator evokes choice creating by encouraging people to address the big issues and to do so in a heartfelt way. Using this kind of facilitation, the facilitator attends to group energy more than to a logical agenda, valuing each comment and each person. Breakthroughs happen when people get clear about what the real problem is and what they really think and feel. Then, they see the whole elephant.

Normal approaches to systems thinking are not suited to helping people overcome denial, but with dynamic facilitation the woman and her group were able to take charge of this situation and build a relationship of trust with the foreman. They involved him in developing new ideas for increasing productivity, and he became a help rather than a hindrance. Dynamic facilitation and choice creating are antidotes to denial.

JIM ROUGH is a consultant, seminar leader, speaker, and author. He invented dynamic facilitation ( and the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit Center for Wise Democratic Processes (

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